Jose Mourinho used the term “déjà vu” after Manchester United again lacked quality in front of goal and drew another home Premier League game on Saturday, this time against a West Brom side that United had comfortably beaten away in December.
Mourinho is fortunate, in that he’s only had to experience the seen-it-all-before feeling this season; frustrated fans have had it for the last four campaigns since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Not enough goals, suspect displays at Old Trafford and the annual chase to see if the team can achieve a top-four finish has become the norm.
With just 27, United scored the fewest goals at home of clubs in the top eight last season; it was the same in 2013-14, when they mustered just 29. The days are long gone of United finishing as the league’s leading scorers, as they did seven straight times between 1996-2002 and three straight times between 2007-2009.
A win was needed vs. West Brom, just as it was against Bournemouth in United’s previous home game a month ago. Two draws came instead and, despite a 19-game unbeaten league run, that top-four finish looks as far away as it has almost all season.
Fans hoped for first or second at the start, but reality has once again sunk in that, no matter how much money has been spent, things are pretty much as they were. United have won only six of 15 home league games, a 40 percent success rate that is the lowest since the team were relegated from the old First Division in 1973-74.
It’s nowhere near good enough. The football was decent before Christmas, but has been less so since the “Something Good” song, featuring the lyrics “Jose’s playing the way that United should” caught on in January. United have drawn five of their last eight games and, for their manager, a run of never finishing lower than third in 12 full Premier League seasons is set to end.
Mourinho still retains support from almost all supporters and changing managers every couple of seasons doesn’t help anyone. Each new man says he has to make massive changes to get things right, and David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho have all done that.
Just like Van Gaal, Mourinho will be get time and support but there are expectations attached: Champions League qualification is the minimum, not that this United side is close to the continent’s best teams.
A place at European football’s top table might still happen and, while it is fair to highlight the poor home form, there have been positives this season. The EFL Cup has been won and a further triumph in the Europa League would see 2016-17 considered a success. United also have six more points than after 28 games last season.
But Mourinho was right to call out his players for their lack of consistency during matches, because playing well in patches and then going missing isn’t good enough. West Brom were hard to break down, but doesn’t every team that comes to Old Trafford aim to be the same?
Opponents used to be scared of that big, slick pitch, which is perfect for creating space and, in the words of Nemanja Vidic, “letting us open up our lungs.” Therefore, was repeatedly pinging high balls toward giant defenders the right tactic? Until Saturday, West Brom hadn’t kept a clean sheet away from home since the opening day of the season.
United have opened teams up in the Europa League but can’t do the same in domestic competition. Mourinho justifiably argues that the league is more equal than ever before and that there are not the predictable home wins against weaker opponents that he experienced in Italy and Spain, a point underlined by Crystal Palace’s win at Chelsea.
United’s football vs. West Brom resembled Van Gaal’s stultifying, possession-based style, which fans hated. It’s “déjà vu,” alright and that theme will likely extend to transfer activity this summer, when there are set to be more big changes. It would be a major surprise, for example, if Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney are at the club next season.
Despite United’s injury and suspension issues, Rooney didn’t start on Saturday, while Shaw didn’t even make the bench. United wanted the left-back, a player executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward put so much into signing three years ago, to be a success. They still do, but board members don’t select the team.
United have been fortuitous with injuries and suspensions until recently, but they’re starting to bite now and the public — at least for media finishing their match reports in the press box — training session on the pitch after Saturday’s snore-fest showed Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic looking sharp. Both should be welcomed back for Tuesday’s home game against an Everton side that can go above United if they win. But United don’t lose and they don’t win at home.
Optimism will increase when a fortune is paid for whoever this year’s most-courted bright young thing is and the club will boast to its many sponsors about record numbers of retweets to accompany signings, but Manchester United are the fifth- or sixth-best team in England and have been for most of the last four years.
But new faces will be treated with more caution from fans, who have been once bitten and twice shy. Rebuilding has been far more fraught than was imagined when Ferguson called it a day.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.